Could the Pakistani government have hidden Bin Laden?

The chaotic state of governance suggests conspiracy on a national scale to protect Bin Laden is fanciful at best.

Osama bin Laden''s Compound
The recent leak of the Bin Laden dossier confirms what author Murtaza Hussain already knew, that the embattled Pakistani state is too chaotic and dysfunctional to have orchestrated a cover-up of Bin Laden's whereabouts [Getty]

The revelation that a Pakistani government dossier regarding Osama bin Laden had leaked to the media immediately brought to mind salacious and popularly held suspicions about the country’s complicity in harbouring the infamous terrorist financier. Bin Laden, who after 9/11 was believed to be on the run in the remote tribal wilderness, eventually was found to be residing, shockingly, in a comfortable home within a quiet Pakistani city with significant military links.

That this city was also home to the Pakistani military’s equivalent of West Point only added to the sense that this was a blatant cover-up and that the Pakistani government was consciously hiding and protecting America’s most wanted terrorist.  Any leaked internal Pakistani documents relating to this affair could then be little else but a documentation of how such a world-beating scheme was pulled off.

However, the dossier which did leak suggests the opposite as true. While the report’s authors do not explicitly rule out state collusion, the picture they paint is one which more strongly reflects bureaucratic chaos and mismanagement than of a finely-tuned, sinister plot. The revelations contained therein may dispel suspicions of any broad, coordinated Pakistani government conspiracy to aid Bin Laden, but they do indict the state in an arguably worse way.

A state without control

There are two competing theses as to how Osama bin Laden may have been able to live for years under the noses of the Pakistani establishment. One posits the necessary collusion of the Pakistani government, while the other assumes structural incompetence led to organisational obliviousness to Bin Laden’s presence on Pakistani soil. Collusion would require an efficiently organised and well-functioning Pakistani state able to keep such an incredible secret, while obliviousness would entail a high-degree of bureaucratic ineptitude and confusion within the state machinery. Even a cursory reading of contemporary Pakistani shows that the latter scenario is the situation which exists at most levels of the country today.

The government is simply too chaotic, disjointed and deeply compromised by the U.S. to have the wherewithal or capacity to engineer such a conspiracy

One may argue in response that the Pakistani government is merely feigning incompetence in order to provide cover for its nefarious activities. In this view the leak of the dossier is simply an alibi to conceal their true role in the Bin Laden saga. But the circumstantial evidence against this hypothesis is too great for it to be plausible. The country is a textbook case of bureaucratic mismanagement and inertia, and the broad organisational integrity required to engineer such a scheme is nowhere in evidence.

Indeed, so greatly has the Pakistani political elite today lost the plot that they themselves cannot protect their own closest kin – as evidenced by the recent kidnapping of former Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani’s son, and the assassination of former President Asif Zardari’s own security chief. Given this reality, it is difficult to fathom how this same class of individuals could have put such an intricate conspiracy over on the entire world. The state is simply not in complete control of events in the way it would need to be for such a thing to be possible – especially not for the countless years in which Osama bin Laden was believed to be hiding out in the country.

As detailed in the report, corruption has trickled down to the point where it is endemic almost everywhere within the Pakistani state. Bin Laden himself is detailed in the dossier to have essentially escaped detection by having his driver bribe a police officer who had pulled his car over for speeding. Even popular media personalities were reported to have been ‘heavily bribed with money, women and alcohol’ in order to print unfavourable news stories about certain factions within the government.

It is worth remembering that the so-called “War on Terror” of the past decade has seen tens of thousands of Pakistanis killed, the country’s name utterly tarnished, the (apparent) fiction of its sovereignty dispelled and its infrastructure reduced to a shambolic state. Even ignoring its protestations of ignorance and incompetence, an objective reading of the circumstances of the Pakistani state does away with the myth that accomplishing a feat such as hiding Bin Laden would even be possible.

A government bought and paid for

The leaked dossier also recounts testimony from former ISI chief Lieutenant-General Ahmed Shuja Pasha in which he says a CIA operative told him: “You are so cheap… we can buy you with a visa, with a visit to the US, even with a dinner… we can buy anyone.” Indeed, the picture painted is of a state willing to acquiesce to any US directive at a whim, as well as a society deeply infiltrated by American intelligence operatives.

Page 198 of the report revealed that in discussions with their Pakistani counterparts on a list of counterterrorism demands, American negotiators were reportedly ‘mystified’ that the Pakistani side ‘caved so promptly and completely’. A follow-up list of negotiating points, created in anticipation of inevitable objections, became immediately superfluous as the Pakistani side fell over themselves to immediately acquiesce to every American demand. The depth of Pakistani collusion with the US on politically-sensitive issues such as drone strikes was also revealed, highlighting the extent to which Pakistani leadership considered the lives and legal rights of the country’s citizens to be utterly forfeit in the face of any American request.

Even NGOs were not spared. The report noted that the American NGO “Save the Children” – created ostensibly to vaccinate and inoculate children against various diseases – was in fact a front operation funded and operated by American intelligence.

The report goes on to say that in fact a huge proportion of the NGOs operating in the country were believed to be compromised by foreign intelligence services (specifically those of the United States) but that they could not be completely barred because of the degree to which large parts of the citizenry were forced to rely on them. In essence, the social services of much of the country have today been outsourced to the CIA.

Pakistan a ‘failing state’ says ISI chief

A more depressing commentary of negligence and corruption would be difficult to find, but it is nonetheless worth pointing out that a Pakistani state so thoroughly compromised by the United States would by its very nature be incapable of engineering a broad conspiracy.

The CIA had penetrated almost every level of the Pakistani state machinery (a reality acknowledged by the authors of the report), making any attempt at comprehensive secrecy nearly impossible. Indeed, the extent to which even Pakistan’s most guarded knowledge – the details of its nuclear weapons program – has today been compromised is a testimony to the inability of the government today to maintain state secrets, let alone grand conspiracies.

The façade of a state

If Americans feel aggrieved or baffled by the series of events which led to Osama bin Laden’s presence in Pakistan, they should reflect on the history which Pakistanis have been dealt by their own government. In a few short decades the citizens of Pakistan have witnessed more ostensibly-conspiratorial episodes than most countries do in their entire histories.  

From the assassination of the country’s first Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan, to the mysterious plane-crash death of General Zia ul Haq, to the murder of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto (and, in years previous, her brother) and innumerable other high-profile cases, Pakistan has been wracked by a long history of shadowy, unexplained violent events in the public sphere. For these cases Pakistanis have never received answers – let alone accountability.

Are events in Pakistan thus being clandestinely dictated by an Illuminati-type cabal, opaquely engineering events to their own benefit; and so powerful that they are able to brazenly defy the will of the world’s only military superpower?

Or is the government itself merely a collection of various disparate factions with little control over broader national events, each out for their own interests (primarily the accumulation of private wealth at the expense of the citizenry) and maintaining merely the chaotic façade of a contiguous “state”?

Occam’s razor would suggest the latter. In this view, validated in great part by the contents of this leaked report, Pakistan would have neither a coherent desire nor the ability to harbour Osama bin Laden. While it is likely that some individual or small group of individuals somewhere within the incoherent state or military apparatus had knowledge of his whereabouts, the allegation of broad or high-level official collusion is an utterly spurious one.

The government is simply too chaotic, disjointed and deeply compromised by the US to have the wherewithal or capacity to engineer such a conspiracy. The conspiracy narrative is only undermined if one operates on the assumption that this leaked dossier is simply the continuation of the same plot – but there is little evidence in the grand history of infighting and maladministration which is the Pakistani bureaucracy to suggest such Machiavellian foresight.

Ordinary Pakistanis are the ultimate victims of this at once malicious and negligent system. With the Bin Laden episode, Americans merely received a glimpse into the bizarrely opaque and chaotic world Pakistan’s government compels its citizens to live with.

Murtaza Hussain is a Toronto-based writer and analyst focused on issues related to Middle Eastern politics.

Follow him on Twitter: @MazMHussain